Spending time in Israel

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Visiting the land of Israel can be an emotional experience. For the native returning home, it means coping with family and friends – and with memories that may be pleasant or oppressive. For the visitor, it can be an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Three recent novels look at different reactions to time spent in Israel, as each author views the country through a different lens.

“Questioning Return”
What happens when secular American Jews become religious and move to Israel? That question fascinates Wendy Goldberg, a graduate student in American religious studies, who, in 1996, receives a grant to live in Israel for a year in order to ask baalat teshuvah (the newly religious Jews) about their lives. Are they happier than they were before? Have their personalities and basic desires changed or have they retained parts of their previous lives? In addition to her academic questioning, Wendy is searching for answers to her own life: will she have a successful career – receiving her Ph.D. and finding employment at a university? How much of her determination for a life in academia is based on rebelling against her parents? And will she ever find a partner who treats her as an equal, or will she spend her life alone? Beth Kissileff discusses these and other questions in her absorbing novel “Questioning Return” (Mandel Vilar Press).
Although Wendy didn’t expect living in Israel to affect her secular attachment to Judaism, she does find herself enjoying Shabbat – how the rhythm of life changes and the way people gather for dinners. However, the question of religion continually arises, whether from those who find themselves becoming more ritually observant or others who have an active dislike of all religious practice. When tragedy strikes, Wendy is upset and fearful that her research played a role. Recovering her equilibrium in both her academic work and her personal life is not easy. The results are a greater understanding of her own impulses and desires.
Kissileff does an excellent job capturing Wendy’s fears about her personal life and her work. The many discussions about Torah and religion combine intellectual and sensual elements. The inclusion of a wide variety of voices – from a Reconstructionist rabbinical student to Modern Orthodox Jews to baalat teshuvah – makes the discussions fascinating, as all struggle to discover a religious path that speaks to their spiritual needs.

“The Extra”
It’s family concerns that bring 42-year-old Naga back to Israel. Now that their father has passed away, her brother Honi wants to convince their mother to leave her apartment in Jerusalem and move to an assisted living facility not far from his home in Tel Aviv. She agrees to try assisted living for three months, but can’t leave her Jerusalem apartment empty for that long a period. In “The Extra” by A. B. Yehoshua (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Naga takes a leave of absence from her job as a harpist with an orchestra in The Netherlands to spend those three months in her childhood home in Jerusalem.
Naga refuses to accept money from her brother for the income she’s losing, so Honi arranges for her to work as an extra in the entertainment industry – acting in films, TV and an opera being performed on Masada. As she travels to these jobs, Naga meets a variety of men who also perform as extras, some of whom form a personal interest in her, although that interest is not always shared. At one point, Naga is forced to confront her past: her ex-husband, who divorced her when she refused to have children. At times, she feels like an extra in her own life, but her determination to play a particular piece of music when her orchestra goes on tour gives her some direction.
Yehoshua writes beautiful prose, although, at times, it’s difficult to decide how he wants readers to understand a character’s behavior. However, it’s easy to just go with the flow – enjoying the writing and not worrying about any additional meaning. There are some surprises, which add tension and interest, but the ending is puzzling. Is it supposed to be happy or sad? That may depend on the reader’s own personal point of view.

“The Dead Man”
Eve is obsessed. The 55-year-old music therapist and composer can’t get beyond the short affair she had more than five years ago with Jake, a married music critic. Her obsession has not only taken over her personal life, but has affected her ability to compose music. In “The Dead Man” by Nora Gold (Inanna Publications and Educations), Eve returns to Israel, where the affair occurred, to attend a music therapy seminar with the hope that she will finally be able to lay that relationship to rest. Once in the country, Eve learns an important Jewish music conference is also being held. At first, she is afraid to go because she thinks Jake might be there. However, when she attends the conference and confronts her past – both with Jake and her parents – Eve comes to understand her own behavior.
At first, Eve’s obsession with Jake is off-putting, especially in light of how deeply it paralyzed her. A widow with two sons, Eve had to prevent her children from learning just how badly she was affected by the end of the affair. However, as Eve explores her past and begins to compose again, the novel becomes interesting and thought provoking – particularly as Eve realizes how women are socialized to assume that someone – usually a man – will come to rescue them. Readers who enjoy psychological analysis of characters will enjoy Eve’s explorations into her family history, and what she learns about herself and her relationship to Jake.